The Rule of Law

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It is arguable that the fundamental change which took place between the ancient world and the modern world was the transition from the rule of a dictator to the rule of law.

In the ancient world - as today - people gave the dictator various titles.  They might be called, for example, King, Emperor, Caesar, Tsar, Chief or Warlord.  The title was unimportant; how they obtained the title was unimportant; what mattered is that their word was law.  The Ruler made the rules - and changed then whenever they wanted.  Almost by definition, the Ruler could do anything - until, of course, someone else came along and took their job,  either because the new one was more powerful, or because the old one managed to make life sufficiently unpleasant for the people around him.

In England, in 1215, a weak king - King John - was forced by the Barons, the group he depended upon, to sign the Magna Charter, which established the fairly novel idea that the King not only made the law, but was also subject to the law.  Over the next few centuries, this idea took root in various places.

In the modern world, the UK has a constitutional monarchy: while the Sovereign is the Head of State, the ability to make decisions about the law resides with an elected Parliament, although the changes do not actually become law until they receive the 'Royal Assent'. In theory, the monarch can choose not to give their assent; in practice, this has not happened since 1708.  And the monarch is very clearly subject to the law which they give assent to.

So the monarch still technically sets the law in the UK, but in practice the power has moved to Parliament.  However, this is a detail: while the question of who makes the law is important, the more important change lies in the scope of the law: the monarch and Parliament are both subject to the law.  This is a breathtaking change, which we all too often take for granted.

The idea that literally everyone is subject to the law is still not entirely understood or believed.  In the classic quote from the former American President Richard Nixon in an interview with David Frost, after Frost asked whether the President could do something illegal in certain situations such as against antiwar groups and others if he decides "it's in the best interests of the nation or something," Nixon replied, "Well, when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal, by definition."


There are disturbing changes to the way the UK is policed in recent years, as can be seen in the Police and Crime Act.  See this article from the Bristol Cable about some key steps which led to this legislation: 5 key moments in history that led to the Police and Crime Act.


People argue about the aim of prison - what we are seeking to achieve when we send people to prison.  But, whatever the aim, unless we consider the aim to be only detention and punishment, then in the UK it is clearly failing.   People come out of prison more likely to commit crime than when they went in, so it neither deters nor reforms.

(See also Prison)


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